SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will not interfere with a previous order requiring California to cut its prison population by thousands of inmates, leaving Gov. Jerry Brown with just one more chance to persuade a lower court to delay or stop the releases.
The justices did not comment on their order, which leaves in place the earlier ruling by a panel of three federal judges requiring California to reduce its prison population by an additional 9,600 inmates to improve medical and mental health treatment.
"They already lost once and the Supreme Court said you don't get a second bite at the apple," said Michael Bien, one of the attorneys representing inmates. "Hopefully it's the signal to all the parties that it's time to comply with the three-judge court's orders and move on with the reforms that are necessary, rather than resisting."
The decision came as state officials are in settlement talks with attorneys representing inmates. The state hopes to persuade the skeptical lower court judges that its latest plan will work.
"In the last two years, California has made the most significant reforms to our criminal justice system in decades, reducing the prison population by 25,000 inmates, " Deborah Hoffman, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a statement on behalf of Brown's administration.
"While we're disappointed the state's case won't be heard, under SB 105 California will continue to build on these landmark reforms with our law enforcement and local government partners," she said.
Last month, Brown signed SB105, a bill allowing the state to spend $315 million this fiscal year to house thousands of inmates in private prisons and county jails unless the lower court postpones its deadline for reducing the prison population.
If the court agrees to a three-year delay, as the Legislature wants, the bill requires the state to spent part of the money on rehabilitation programs intended to reduce the inmate count over time.
Both proposals would replace a previous ruling that said the state can safely release more than 4,000 inmates by increasing good-behavior credits. The ruling also calls for early releases for elderly and medically incapacitated inmates and sending more inmates to firefighting camps and new facilities.
The lower court had threatened to cite Brown for contempt if he did not comply, but last month the judges ordered the state to negotiate with inmates' attorneys toward a possible compromise.
In 2011, Supreme Court justices ruled that the lower court panel had the authority to order California to reduce inmate overcrowding as the key condition for improving conditions.
In considering the state's appeal a second time, the high court had three options: affirming the three-judge court's decision, dismissing it because of a lack of jurisdiction, or accepting the case on appeal.
"The appeal is dismissed for want of jurisdiction," the court said, without further explanation. The court earlier this year rejected the state's request to delay the lower court's order, signaling that it was unlikely to consider the appeal.
At the heart of the case is a 2001 lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates who claimed medical treatment in the prisons was so poor it was leading to a death a week through neglect or malpractice.
The federal courts agreed, saying conditions were so bad that they violated inmates' constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment.
In addition to spending billions of dollars on new medical facilities and staff, the state also has been ordered to reduce overcrowding, which was seen as a main obstacle to providing better health care. The state has also been forced to take similar steps to improve inmate mental health treatment, the subject of a separate lawsuit.
California's state prison population already has been reduced by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006 to meet the federal court mandates. The judges have ordered that the population in the state's 33 adult prisons be reduced to 137.5 percent of design capacity — or 110,000 inmates — by the end of this year.
In arguing against the inmate-reduction order, the Brown administration said the state would have to release serious and violent offenders. The governor also argued in court filings that the lower court has overstepped its authority under federal law.
Brown remained combative even after the lower court gave the state a one month reprieve from its year-end deadline for releasing prisoners, to allow time for the negotiations. Brown immediately filed a supplemental appeal with the Supreme Court objecting that the lower court simultaneously blocked the state from contracting to send more inmates to private prisons in other states.
Brown argues that the population cap is no longer needed because prison health care has improved significantly. He also contends that the state lacks lower-risk offenders who could safely be released early because most of those are already being sentenced to county jails instead of state prisons.